For Whom the Bell Tolls
by Rev. Frank Julian Gelli
London’s Tavistock Square is delightful. Bang in the heart of literary Bloomsbury. Once inhabited by writers like Dickens and Virginia Woolf. In the central, shady garden is an unusual statue - the priest likes it very much. It shows an ascetic-looking man, sitting cross-legged, as if in meditation. It is Mahatma Gandhi, the great apostle of ahimsa, non-violence.
I paused by the monument yesterday, lost in contemplation. Traffic roared around the square but the centre was so peaceful. Mahatma means ‘great soul’. Title befitting a man who won India’s independence through his policy of non-violent, civic disobedience. Yet violence, bloodshed, which Gandhi abhorred, eventually took his life. A fanatic Hindu assassinated the man who would not shed blood in pursuit of his righteous cause. ‘Oh God! Oh God!’ were Gandhi’s last words.
Ahimsa.The Great Soul’s example continues to inspire people everywhere. But violence still has its votaries. On July the 7th 2005, another fanatic, this time a Muslim, blew himself up on a bus crossing the square. It was part of a coordinated bombing attack on London. 52 innocent people died and hundreds were injured. By chance, I arrived in the nearby Gordon Square shortly after the outrage. The police had cordoned off the area but the mayhem was visible. I remember visualising Gandhi, meditating quietly on his plinth, and yet aware of the carnage around him. Bits of mangled flesh and blood may well have bespattered his statue. ‘Oh God! Oh God!’ I imagined him whispering quietly to himself, ‘Once again, violence. Once again is innocent blood being shed. Will they never learn?’
Ahimsa. Non violence. Refusing to shed your enemy’s blood. Tonight, I watched on TV Thai demonstrators pouring out their own blood unto government buildings in protest over a recent military coup. A bit gory but – is it not better voluntarily to shed some of your own blood than other people’s? Killing is easy, terribly easy. Indeed, it is easier to kill than to prove the justice of one’s own cause. Thai people are mostly Buddhists and Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, the Awakened One, was a supreme teacher of ahimsa. Not all of his followers have always lived up to it – anymore than Christ’s followers have always followed in the Master’s footsteps – but Siddhartha’s non-violent teaching is luminous. Hence the Bangkok protesters have provided the world with an effective, powerful symbolism of ahimsa.
That little, scrawny man sitting in Tavistock Square. He keeps meditating. What on? Perhaps about what is brewing up in Palestine. East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza are in turmoil. The Palestinians are desperate. Increasingly, they suffer deprivations, restrictions, violence and no end of humiliations. No Palestinian state is remotely in the offing. Israeli intransigence is driving the Arabs mad, pushing them into a third intifada. The people are about to explode. With Gandhi, I see a hot, bloody Middle East summer ahead. Again, there will be much bloodshed. Most, of course, will be Palestinian blood. The duel is so unequal. Israel-Goliath has the big guns. But Hamas feels confident, is strong, strategically it plays a long term game. Only one thing is certain: too many people will die. ‘Oh God! Oh God!’ Gandhi shakes his head, grieving on his plinth. ‘Men will never change.’
Ahimsa. Non violence. The weapon of the weak? Actually, it is an expression that Gandhi came to dislike. The idea of passivity, as in ‘passive resistance’ he thought wrong. Non-violence he conceived as an active force, a weapon of the strong. That is right. Just imagine the inner strength, the power, the resolution that it takes to resist and reject the lure of bombs, of guns, of revenge, of spattering your enemy’s blood all over the place. Non-violence resistance is no option for shrinking violets but for the truly strong. Barbarians and primitive people of course have no compunction about killing. They know no better. But men who have been handed down a divine law, recipients of God’s revelation, of a sublime teaching from on high…they have no excuse. Besides, who but a barbarian or a savage will deny that peace, reason and dialogue are better ways of conducting human relations than violence, war and murder? Christians, Muslims and Jews, aren’t they all one? All human beings come from God. Each person’s death diminishes humanity and offends God. ‘Do not ask for whom the bell tolls’ writes the poet, ‘It tolls for thee.’
Radical American academic Norman Finkelstein has argued the Palestinians should adopt Gandhi’s non violent but active tactics of non-resistance. He once imagined a massive march of West Bankers converging unto the partition wall, armed with picks and shovels, and beginning dismantling it. The Israeli Army naturally would open fire, kill many, but eventually non-violence would overcome.
But would it? Maybe not. The problem with killing is that people may take a liking to it. Most Israelis are said to have enjoyed the indiscriminate, ferocious assault on Gaza. And who is anyone, even this poor priest, sitting comfortably at his keyboard, to impart lofty advice to a long-suffering people? Too easy. The Palestinians have got to do what they have got to do. ‘We are Muslims. We don’t turn the other cheek’, they cry out. Like Gandhi on his plinth, however, I must grieve. What’s the use? They can’t win. Europe is pretty impotent and Obama…I read he is getting a bit angry with Israel. Obama’s anger? Huh! It must be like being savaged by a dead sheep. Forget it. No help from there, alas.
Christ actually did not turn the other cheek. When struck by the High Priest’s servant, he remonstrated: ‘If I have done wrong, bear witness to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’ (St John, 18, v.23) And he was strong. The Lord of the Universe, the Ruler of the Cosmos, he could have summoned twelve legions of angels to his aid, as St Matthew records, and yet he did not shed his persecutors’ blood. Instead, he allowed his innocent blood to be shed, ‘as a ransom for many’. That was tremendous divine non-violence in action. And it worked. Christ’s message of peace is still alive and it moves mountains.
Mahatma Gandhi. Cynics say the Great Soul failed in the end. Even if so, his ‘failure’ speaks to the hearts of good people more than the putative success of any men of violence. Gandhi has left the world a shining example and heritage. Ahimsa. And his beautiful last words for me spell no despair but the sublimest hope: ‘Oh God! Oh God!’
FATHER FRANK’S RANTS
Rant Number 389 17 March 2010